By Robert Bernstein
Local writer Ashleigh Brilliant was the May speaker at the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara. His chosen title: “Support Your Local God.”
Here are my photos, videos and related links.
I have known Ashleigh Brilliant for about 35 years. On a family trip to Chicago in 1969 I saw a rack of his Pot Shot post cards and bought two of them. Here is one:
In the early 1980s I was at the July 4 Mission Art Show and was honored to meet Ashleigh in person.
When he learned that I was a science and engineering person he invited me to his home to see if I could set a timepiece that he had. He was thrilled that I could do so. I later helped him with some other technology involving computers and email. And, later, digital photography. I was honored to be a part of his life.
Like me, he avoids driving as much as possible, preferring to bike and to walk or ride the bus. Interesting, since his UC Berkeley PhD history dissertation was on the history of the automobile in Southern California. He would think nothing of walking from downtown Santa Barbara to UCSB and coming home on the bus. This common interest led to us hiking together on occasion.
We shared a similar background in some ways. We were both from a Jewish background yet we were not believers. But there were notable differences. I grew up in a family of activists. Ashleigh is not much of an activist except when something gets him fired up. He hates noise (as do I) and he successfully fought for a ban on dirt blowers in Santa Barbara.
Knowing that he generally is not much of an activist made his talk to the Humanist Society less of a surprise to me than to others. Still, it was surprising to learn new things about Ashleigh after knowing him so long.
Ashleigh began his Humanist Society talk with the greeting “Fellow Humans” rather than “Fellow Humanists”. Much of his talk was devoted to his doubts that he should call himself a Humanist.
Part of this was due to his general aversion to identifying with any organized groups. But there was more.
Humanist Society Board member Clover Gowing had sent him a letter inviting him to speak. He was charmed with her name. She had been intrigued by an article “Astronomy and Angels” that he had published in the Montecito Journal. In her letter she mentioned the “rampant religiosity in the land” and Ashleigh appreciated her poetic language.
But he was concerned that Humanists seemed to spend too much time thinking about and bashing organized religion. He has written over 10,000 epigrams on many subjects. Many do mention God, but usually “in a sort of friendly way.” For example “God doesn’t make special reports to me – I just have to assume the universe is running properly.”
And the one he selected as the title of his talk “Support your local God”. This was a take-off on the 1960s slogan “Support your local police”. It was also a reminder that each locality has its own gods. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” His last book was titled “I’m Just Moving Clouds Today – Tomorrow I’ll Try Mountains”. It had a faith theme. This was a takeoff on “if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain”.
As for Rampant Religiosity, he sees himself less as a Good Humanist Man than as a Good Humor Man. Peddling little sweet morsels of his own brand of enlightenment.
He confesses that he sometimes will watch televangelists. He particularly likes Joel Osteen. He likes that Osteen has a positive message that God is always on your side. A message of the Power of Faith. Many of Ashleigh’s own Pot Shots are along these lines:
The active ingredient in many very effective home remedies is called faith.
There is always room in my faith for you and your doubts.
The only truly solid foundation there can be for anything in this world is solid faith.
When it’s my faith against your statistics, your statistics haven’t got a chance.
But he also is proud of some non-religious messages. His very first Pot Shot #1 says “LET’S KEEP THE CHRIST IN CHRYSLER.” Inspired by seeing “Let’s Keep the Christ in Christmas” stuck on a car.
Then came an extraordinary revelation about Ashleigh that I had not known. Raymond B Bragg was a Unitarian minister in Kansas City. He was a leading Humanist. Indeed, he initiated the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933. Bragg died in 1979 but an award was established in his honor. Ashleigh said that he received their very first Award for Humanism in Entertainment and The Arts in 1987. He received $2,000 cash and a free trip to Kansas City to receive the award.
Here is the program from that event.
Ashleigh suggested that awards can be good incentives. (Not in his case as he did not even know of the award.) The $25,000 Orteig Prize motivated Lindbergh to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Ashleigh suggested that maybe there should be a ten million dollar prize if you live to age 120. You would want to stay healthy enough to enjoy the money, too. Perhaps a prize for a cure for the common cold, too.
He offered another Humanist credential: A song he wrote about brotherhood during his “Summer of Love” time living in Haight-Ashbury. He sang it for us, to the tune of “Home on the Range”.
As for going after “Rampant Religiosity”? He sang another of his songs. About “Father Fallon” who turns on from being Catholic priest to hippie.
As for Atheism. One of his epigrams says: “For obvious reasons, Atheists have to take very good care of themselves.” A reference to the 1929 song “Button Up Your Overcoat”.
But Ashleigh thinks he does not have enough faith to be a good Atheist. And being an Agnostic is just a cop-out. Growing up, he went through all of the Jewish rituals. He went to five years of Hebrew School and had a Bar Mitzvah. But he never learned to understand Hebrew. Nor did he really end up believing anything of a theological nature. At age 19 he lived in Israel for a summer and came away even less religious.
He created a crisis in his family by dating women outside of the faith. The women ended up taking Jewish lessons and converted to Judaism.
Clover had sent him a Pew study of attitudes toward different religious groups. Surprisingly, Jews came out at the top. And Atheists came out at the very bottom. He wonders if it is not about ideology but about the long A sound at the start. Perhaps it reminds people of Ailments, Aging, Alienation, Aches, AIDS and Anal exams.
Perhaps “Freethinkers” would get a better response from Pew. Americans love Freedom. As for Rampant Religiosity affecting his life, he says it has not. His publishers have never tried to change his writings.
He closed with his “Atheist’s Prayer” which begins:
Help me to deny thee;
Lord of the lordless,
Give me faith to have no faith,
Give me the wisdom not to understand – And the power to doubt.
It was a most unusual Humanist Society meeting with just one question. Former Humanist Society President Ron Kronenberg asked Ashleigh if he thought life was worth living.
Before Ashleigh had a chance to answer, I reminded him of one of the two Pot Shots that I bought as a child at the airport in Chicago.
When I asked him later about this question he said, “Compared to what?” Asking if life is worth living has to be compared with some alternative!
He stayed after the talk to sign copies of his books. Here he is signing some for Humanist Society member and actress Meredith McMinn
Ashleigh has kindly offered the full text of his speech here. And here you can learn more about the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara!